All Nordic languages: Impersonal passive

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J.F. de TROYES

Senior Member
francais-France
I am wondering if impersonal passives can be used in Scandinavian languages like in the following German sentences or is the active form preferred with a subject as man as we do in French :

1. In den Bus wird durch die Hintertür ein gestiegen.
2.In den angelsächsisten Ländern wird links gefahren.

Thanks a lot for your reply .
 
  • raumar

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    For the Norwegian case:

    Yes, impersonal passives can be used, although active forms generally are encouraged. However, your two examples show that impersonal passives don't work equally well everywhere, and the constructions may be different from German.

    In your second sentence, both the active and passive option work well (although I would prefer the active):
    I Storbritannia kjører man på venstre side.
    I Storbritannia kjøres det på venstre side,


    In the first example, the active form works well:
    På bussen går man inn gjennom bakdøra.
    However, a direct conversion to a passive form, as in the example above, is not natural at all:
    På bussen gåes det inn gjennom bakdøra.
    You need to rephrase the sentence to keep some kind of passive form, for example like this:
    På bussen brukes bakdøra til påstigning.
     

    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    I Storbritannia kjøres det på venstre side,
    På bussen gåes det inn gjennom bakdøra.
    Why is it, I wonder, that the first sentence is OK, but the second is not?

    Normally passive sentences have a clear subject - a subject that would be the direct object in the active form.

    But det kjøres seems to break that rule. Would that be simply because it has become a fixed expression? Or is can it be explained by a more general principle? I am struggling to think of other examples.
     

    raumar

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    I am not a linguist, and I can't explain this properly, but this kind of sentence is not unusual. For example:
    Det arbeides med å løse problemet.
    (instead of Vi/jeg/han arbeider med å løse problemet.)

    Such constructions are often seen in bureaucratic language. They may be useful if you lack information, for example whether it is X or Y who works to solve the problem. (Or maybe it is a way to avoid taking/assigning responsibility).

    Regarding På bussen gåes det inn gjennom bakdøra.
    This may not be grammatically wrong, but it is so stilted that nobody would actually say it.
     

    winenous

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Ah yes, of course there are other examples, even if I could not think of any, and my "rule" is not one that applies to Norwegian at all. But at least I seem to have a good gut-feeling about the cases that do and don't work, so I shall be content with that for now. Many thanks
     

    MattiasNYC

    Senior Member
    Swedish
    I suspect it's the same in Swedish.

    In addition to what Raumar said regarding it being common in bureaucratic language I have a feeling we might see this more commonly also in documentary / narrative speech and text. So apart from some constructions being very awkward even if they are grammatically correct I'd also say that it's perhaps a matter of style and context.

    Anyone else have any thoughts on it?
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    1. In den Bus wird durch die Hintertür ein gestiegen.
    2.In den angelsächsisten Ländern wird links gefahren.
    In Danish I would say,

    Der stiges op/ind i bussen ad bagdøren.
    I England køres der i venstre side.


    I find the use of the impersonal passive here grammatical and I don't find either of these sentences unnatural, but passive constructions may sound a bit lofty or stilted... even dated, and most people would probably opt for active constructions here, man stiger ind, man kører. I agree with Raumar and MattiasNYC regarding usage of the passive.

    But det kjøres seems to break that rule. Would that be simply because it has become a fixed expression? Or is can it be explained by a more general principle? I am struggling to think of other examples.
    Det in Norwegian, der in Danish works as an impersonal dummy subject and is widely used in passive constructions. Here are a few more examples,

    Der skrives meget om præsidentvalget i aviserne.
    Der snakkes i krogene om hvem der skal være den næste kandidat.
    Hvis du skal til eksamen om 4 dage, så skal der vist læses!
    Der tales ikke om andet end Covid19 i denne tid.
    Der fældes træer til møbelindustrien.


    A questions for Raumar: do you think your sentence would sound less unnatural if you kept the the object of the preposition with the verb/preposition together? i.e. Det gåes inn på bussen gjennom bakdøra?

    Bic.
     

    raumar

    Senior Member
    Norwegian
    Bic, you are of course right in pointing out that these passive constructions are widely used. Your five examples are natural in Norwegian as well, although the last one, "Det felles trær til møbelindustrien", sounds very formal. I would only expect to see that example in some written document, while the four others could be used in everyday speech.

    Maybe "det snakkes, det sies, det skrives" and similar expressions are used more than other impersonal passives, because they are practical in situations where we can't specify who the speaker/writer is.

    A questions for Raumar: do you think your sentence would sound less unnatural if you kept the the object of the preposition with the verb/preposition together? i.e. Det gåes inn på bussen gjennom bakdøra?
    I don't really think that would make the sentence more natural, although the standard word order would be to begin the passive sentence with "Det", unless you want to emphasise "på bussen".

    I am not even sure if it should be "gås" or "gåes" - I actually think "gås" is correct. But both seem to be used. Here are some examples from Google:

    Da skal det gåes 20 kilometer fellesstart med skibytte. (about cross-country skiing).
    Det gås individuell sprint lørdag og lagsprint søndag i Dresden. (also cross-country skiing)
    ... han eller hun nullstiller arbeidsmiljøet før det gås videre med endringsprosessen.
    Det var mye å hevne etter fem tyske okkupasjonsår, og her skulle det gås hardt frem og tas igjen.


    I think the reason why I have problems with the "på bussen" sentence, is that - as you point out - passive constructions often sound lofty or stilted. This specific sentence crosses the line - at least in my opinion - and becomes too awkward.
     

    bicontinental

    Senior Member
    English (US), Danish, bilingual
    @ raumar,
    Thanks for your comments.

    Maybe "det snakkes, det sies, det skrives" and similar expressions are used more than other impersonal passives, because they are practical in situations where we can't specify who the speaker/writer is.
    That's a good point.

    I am not even sure if it should be "gås" or "gåes" - I actually think "gås" is correct. But both seem to be used. Here are some examples from Google:
    In Danish the correct writing is gås (just like the bird...goose) even though the past participle is gået... not that it would necessarily be the same in Norwegian.

    Bic.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    I suspect it's the same in Swedish.

    In addition to what Raumar said regarding it being common in bureaucratic language I have a feeling we might see this more commonly also in documentary / narrative speech and text. So apart from some constructions being very awkward even if they are grammatically correct I'd also say that it's perhaps a matter of style and context.

    Anyone else have any thoughts on it?
    Interesting, because in French the impersonal passive is chiefly used in the administrative language in phrases like "it has been recommended ... , it has been stipulate... , it has been anwered... and so on.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    Thanks a lot to everybody for your comments. So, generally speaking, it seems that using the active is more "natural" in the sentences I've suggested. Instead passive forms are usual in phrases as Der/det snakkes , der/ det skrives . After your examples I see even intransitive verbs can be used in passive forms, but der/det is required where the subject of the active form stands. Am I right ?
     

    Rafeind

    Member
    Icelandic - Iceland
    I know I am a bit late to the party, but I wanted to add that such passives are also used in Icelandic. Your examples would be:
    “Það er gengið inn í strætóinn/strætisvagninn/rútuna að aftan.” and​
    “Á Bretlandi er keyrt vinstra megin á veginum.“​
    I am not sure the second one would be used though. I think there most people would either go for the active with “Á Bretlandi keyrir maður vinstra megin á veginum.” or even more commonly with another active verb “Á Bretlandi er vinstri umferð.“

    In such sentences “það“ is a dummy pronoun which disappears when the word order is changed:
    “Það var ekki flogið í gær.“ -> “Í gær var ekki flogið.”

    In my mind there is sometimes a bit of a difference between the impersonal passive and an active voice with ‘maður‘. Take for example the sentence "Það var dansað eftir matinn.” = “After the meal there was dancing.“1)
    ‘Í boðinu hjá Höllu var dansað eftir matinn.’ = ‘At the party at Halla‘s ...’. Here an active with ‘maður’ does not work since it is just a single party.​
    On the other hand ’Í boðum hjá Höllu dansar maður eftir matinn.’ = ‘At parties at Halla’s ...‘ works because it is more general, but sounds a bit like scolding someone for not doing so.​
    ’Í boðum hjá Höllu er dansað eftir matinn.’ of course also works and sounds more like neutrally describing the parties.​

    1) I am aware that this is not a good English sentence but I think it kind of gets the meaning across. After the meal some people danced.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    Thank so much for adding your comments on how impersonal passives work in Icelandic It's very clear-cut.

    So Í boðinu hjá Höllu var dansað eftir matinn sounds quite natural , but would you say the same as our Norwegian and Danish friends about sentences like Það er gengið inn í strætóinn að aftan, namely that they are rather used in administrative or documentary texts where the writer has not to be named ?
     

    Rafeind

    Member
    Icelandic - Iceland
    I am not sure there is anything clear-cut about this subject.

    I am not sure. I mean such sentences are more often needed in administrative text or on the news and so it is more likely to find them there. Very often when there is such a low focus on who is doing things that a impersonal passive is needed, there is something else which the focus is on and which is then put first in the sentence. And in normal conversation it is more common to be talking about something which happened to one or more of the people speaking in which case an impersonal passive is not the most likely choice.
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    Thanks for your reply and I agree with you. I think you were as clear-cut as possible about language events that are always very uneasy to be explained.
     
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